FOR a small Inner Hebridean island with a population of not much more than 700, Tiree has produced an inordinate number of accordionists, not least those playing in such well-known west coast bands as Skipinnish, Skerryvore and Gunna Sound, as well as in up-and-coming young outfits such as Trail West and Dùn Mòr. Much of the credit for this must go to Gordon Connell, a self-taught piano-accordionist whose enthusiasm for the music and dedication as a teacher has inspired some 100 accordionists on the island which has been his home since 1962.
Voted Music Tutor of the Year in the 2010 Scots Trad Music Awards, Gordon first arrived on the island to take up a post as history and later modern studies teacher at Cornaigmore School – now Tiree High School – and by 1970 he was teaching accordion there. Described as “a natural teacher”, he taught initially by ear, although the arrival of a music teacher on the school’s staff in the mid-1970s enabled his pupils to read music, making it easier for Gordon to teach them – although he describes his own music-reading skills as “still pretty basic”.
His teaching may have been on a voluntary basis, but his impact on the island’s young musicians has been huge. On a BBC Alba documentary about the accordion, Beò air a’ Bhogsa – “Outside the Box”, a few years ago, one of his students, Ian Smith, the accordionist of Trail West and a finalist in the 2014 Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year competition, commented: “I don’t think anyone could match what Gordon did – an immense amount of work as a tutor.”
“Gordon is quite different to any other music tutor I’ve ever had,” says Daniel Gillespie, accordionist with the now internationally renowned west-coast folk-rockers Skerryvore. “It’s unbelievable how natural teaching is to him and how much patience he has. Gordon would be first to say that he’s not a world-class accordion player but he is a world-class teacher. And he’s never taken a penny for his teaching.”
Yet Gordon didn’t actually take up the accordion until he arrived on the island. Born in 1940, he grew up in the village of Blairmore, nine miles outside Dunoon. He attended Strone Primary School & Dunoon Grammar school, then went on to gain a degree at Glasgow University before doing his teacher-training year at Jordanhill Collage.
Rather than music, his main interests while growing up were golf and football, and he still maintains an enthusiastic interest in the latter sport. He recalls, however, listening to the Saturday evening Scottish country dance music programme on the radio. It wasn’t until he arrived in Tiree, however, that he took up the box, and in hindsight describes his initial efforts as “rather painful to listen to”.
With perseverance, however, his playing improved and by 1970 was teaching the instrument as a leisure activity at the school. The island’s accordion scene started to really take off around 1990, says Gordon, who credits the fact that students were starting to compete at the National Mòd and also that Tiree started its own annual Fèis.
He retired from his teaching job at the school in 1996, but was persuaded to carry on teaching accordion by the enthusiasm of his pupils. “What still motivates me is the great response I get from my students,” he says. “At present I have a really keen group at various stages; they’re all fantastic people and are a pleasure to teach.”
Tiree, he adds, is “a small and friendly community. Most of my former students still keep in touch – many of them I count as friends.”
So far as his own playing is concerned, he declares simply that “teaching youngsters who are about to overtake you is motivation enough for me to keep practising and trying to learn new tunes – I wouldn’t really class myself as a player.
“I guess the most satisfying thing for me is seeing my students progress – some to form their own bands – at least four of them are making a living from their music and a couple of others are bandleaders with day jobs, but extremely competent just the same.”